Sledding Safety: How to Choose the Best Sled and Avoid Injury

Sledding is a fun winter activity, but it’s responsible for tens of thousands of trips to the emergency room every year. Here are tips on how to choose the safest sled for your child, avoid sledding injuries, and treat injuries when accidents happen.

As soon as those first few fluffy flakes fall, our kids start dreaming of school snow days spent sliding down the nearest slippery slope. As parents, we revel in our tots’ rosy cheeks and squeals of glee as they pack their bundled-up little bodies onto their sleds, whiz down the hill, and beg for “just one more run.” Sledding is a rite of childhood and it’s certainly fun, but like any activity that involves young children, high speeds, and the unpredictable outdoors, it comes with its own dangers, and parents need to be prepared to prevent and deal with any injuries that may occur.

Common Sledding Injuries

The most common sledding injuries, says Fidel Garcia, M.D., medical director of PM Pediatrics in Brooklyn, are fractures, closely followed by scrapes and bruises. “The most common body part affected is the head,” Dr. Garcia says. “One-third of all injuries involve the head in children and 10 percent of those result in significant traumatic brain injuries.”

How to Avoid Sledding Injuries

According to Dr. Garcia, the majority of sledding injuries can be avoided by following a few important guidelines:

Supervision is a must. An adult must always be present when children are sledding. “You, as the adult, must make sure they are using safe areas to sled, meaning the areas don’t have trees, poles, or fences,” Dr. Garcia says. “Parents must make sure the area is not only an ample sledding pathway but it is away from the street, parking lots, and other hazardous areas.” Dr. Garcia advises against sledding in the street or on the sidewalk, even when there’s ample snow, because there are too many potential hazards.

Use an actual sled, not a substitute object such as a plastic sheet. “You don’t have good control of a plastic sheet and it can be easily perforated by rocks or branches, leaving a child at risk for injury,” Dr. Garcia says.

One child per sled. “When you have two or three people piled up on a sled that is not designed for it, it can impair your ability to control the sled,” Dr. Garcia says. “And it impairs your ability to control the bodies if some type of crash occurs. Some types of sleds are designed for two people and that’s okay. But you shouldn’t pile up kids to make it more exciting or fun.”

Facing forward, feet first: This is the ideal position for sledding because kids are best able to control the sled from this position, by steering with their feet or with a rope attached to the sled’s handles. Kids should never sled head first down the hill. “So the belly flop approach—where you start running, do a belly flop on the sled, and continue to ride—is not recommended or safe because you lose control of your ability to brake and you lose control of the sled,” Dr. Garcia says. “This also puts your head presenting first in the event of an injury where you directly impact a moving vehicle, a tree, a fence, or another person.”

Kids younger than 12 should wear a helmet. “This is because children have larger heads and their center of gravity is higher than older children and adults,” Dr. Garcia says. Therefore, in the event of a crash, it’s more likely that the child will injure his head than another part of his body.

Wear warm and protective clothing. “If a branch falls off, the clothing will provide an extra layer of support,” Dr. Garcia says.

Know when to bail out. Explain to kids that they should bail out—by covering their face and head with their arms to protect their face and eyes, then rolling off the sled—whenever they lose control, lose visibility, or think they’re going to end up in a treacherous area, such as a pond, parking lot, or an area with trees and poles.

Treating Sledding Injuries

Accidents happen. If your child gets injured while sledding, you’ll need to gage whether you can treat the injury at home or if it requires a trip to the ER. “Clearly when a child loses control and runs into a tree, post, fence, or moving vehicle, that’s the type of injury you don’t want to treat at home,” Dr. Garcia says. “In that case, a parent should immediately call 911 or go to a pediatric emergency center and have the injuries evaluated.”

More minor injuries, such as bruises and sprains, can be treated by resting, elevating, and icing the injured area or extremity. “In the case of a sprain, you should wrap the area with a compression elastic bandage or Ace overwrap,” Dr. Garcia says. “In the case of a superficial abrasion of the skin [a bruise], use an antibiotic ointment and good wound care. Use Tylenol, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen to treat the pain and the swelling. Ibuprofen is better for swelling but both work well for pain management.”

How to Choose a Safe Sled

The Center for Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, conducted a sledding study in 2011 to pinpoint the cause of sledding injuries and establish safe sledding practices. Tracy Mehan, health educator at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, offers the following tips based on the study’s results.

What types of sleds are safest?

The safest types of sleds are those that can be steered and that have rails that raise the rider off the ground.

Are there any types of sleds that should be avoided?

Tubes and other types of sleds that cannot be steered should only be used in tubing parks that have clearly defined lanes.

Does a child’s age come into play when choosing a sled?

Younger children may have a harder time steering out of danger. You might want to choose a sled that you can pull or one that will allow an older sibling or adult to ride with them and be in charge of steering.